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Apr 08, 2007

The Writer's Tale

It’s hard to pinpoint why The Shakespeare Code never really came alive for me. It had so many of the ingredients that go into making a great episode – an excellent cast, an interesting story set-up, superb special effects and ambitious location shooting. It was an episode I had been especially looking forward to as I have enjoyed much of Gareth Roberts’s previous work as well as the previous ‘celebrity historical’ episodes of the new series. But unfortunately I just found the spark to be missing this week. I kept waiting for the episode to really come to life, and it never did.

It feels as if I’m searching around for things I didn’t like, and in a way I am as it is a genuine puzzle to me as to why I felt this episode simply didn’t get going.

Which is a shame, because as I said, there was much here to like. Freema Agyeman continues to impress, although she had a great deal less to do this week, which perhaps might have something to do with the episode’s lack of dynamism. David Tennant continues to grow wonderfully into the role of the Doctor, conveying more authority than he did in series two and doing a good job of getting across some of the wonder and mystery of the character here. And Dean Lennox Kelly, an intriguing choice as Shakespeare for those of us more familiar with his laddish role as Kev in Shameless, was excellent as the Bard. There was good support as well from the two actors playing Shakespeare’s colleagues, and the performance standards as a whole cannot be faulted.

Hmmmm, it feels as if I’m searching around for things I didn’t like, and in a way I am as it is a genuine puzzle to me as to why I felt this episode simply didn’t get going. The pre-titles sequence, I will admit, I found to be a little on the over-camp side, with its cackling witches – and was it ever established just why exactly they needed to rip that chap to pieces in the first place? A poor pre-titles sequence doesn’t necessarily sink a story, though. This time last year I found the kung-fu monks in Tooth and Claw a bit of an embarrassment, but after the opening titles that episode was a cracker from end to end.

I particularly liked the death by drowning, a gruesomely unpleasant scene that will doubtless have caused a few nightmares and had a few concerned parents ringing in to complain about the irresponsibility of the BBC. Lovely stuff!

Which this wasn’t. Perhaps it was the little things that got on my nerves and stopped me from simply sitting back and enjoying the story. For example, I got a bit ticked off at the constant flow of Shakespearean lines from the Doctor, followed by Shakespeare’s replies of “I’ll have that!” Once or twice, yes, but so many instances and it seemed like over-egging the pudding a little. Perhaps it’s because Roberts is such a fan of Shakespeare and couldn’t resist it – certainly his appreciation of the famous playwright serves him well elsewhere in the episode, though. Shakespeare standing up against the Carrionites and using his lyrical talents to reverse their science works well, and it was also nice to find someone perceptive enough to be able to see through the psychic paper for a change. His realisation of just where exactly the Doctor and Martha were from was also good, and his observations did add more of an air of mystery to the Doctor, which is always welcome. Why indeed this constant performance? The Carrionites noticed it too, seeing no has no name in the same way Reinette did last year. I love those sorts of moments.

Speaking of the Carrionites, perhaps it was them that I didn’t take to? I could certainly have done without the two cackling old crones, but I imagine that they probably went down well with the children at home. Christina Cole’s turn as their leader, Lilith, was a good performance though, walking just the right line between seductive villainess and your more bog standard evil alien adversary trapped on Earth. I was relieved that the witchcraft element turned out to have an alien explanation, as Doctor Who always works well – like Quatermass and the Pit before it, the grandfather of this sort of thing – when supplying a scientific, if not necessarily earthly, explanation for seemingly supernatural events.

“Your effect is special indeed,” is, as Martha Jones herself points out, one of the weaker lines that Roberts gives Shakespeare in the episode, but it is fitting when discussing the work of the special effects teams on Doctor Who and the effort that must have gone into The Shakespeare Code. The overhead shots of the streets of London as the Globe Theatre is enveloped by demons are stunning, as are the less obvious but still impressive crowd shots in the theatre early on, built up piece-by-piece from little clumps of fifty extras. It’s amazing what moving from place to place on a green screen and swapping hats and cloaks can achieve! The practical effects seen during the episode were also of a high standard – I particularly liked the death by drowning, a gruesomely unpleasant scene that will doubtless have caused a few nightmares and had a few concerned parents ringing in to complain about the irresponsibility of the BBC. Lovely stuff!

Doubtless one of these decades Big Finish will be providing us with a story explaining exactly how the Tenth Doctor comes (or came, depending on how you look at it!) to incur the wrath of the famous monarch.

Charles Palmer also deserves praise for his direction – a second top-notch episode in a row from him in directorial terms, and I am pleased that we will be seeing more of his work later in the season. Co-ordinating all of the effects, costume and design efforts that must go into a period episode can be no easy task, and having to de-camp to London to shoot scenes at the actual Globe Theatre reconstruction must have been a huge effort too, but it was all worth it as Palmer manages to get a real gloss on screen. Perhaps it’s due to him too that we have had such a strong start to the series from Tennant and a great debut couple of performances from Agyeman – I hope the standard is maintained next week, with another director new to the series at the helm.

So far, so good. All of it good. There are nitpicks and scenes I didn’t like and lines that I found irritating rather than amusing, but none of this explains why at the end of the episode I felt underwhelmed by what I had just seen. Perhaps it’s due to expectations – last week I wasn’t expecting quite so much after the slightly disappointing New Earth last year, but I really enjoyed Smith and Jones. With this episode, I had high expectations of a celebrity historical and a Gareth Roberts script, and I suppose I just set those expectations a little too high and thought we might be in the for the best episode ever. It’s not, but it’s also a long way away from being poor.

It also had, it must be said, one of the best little gags there’s been in the new series yet, when Queen Elizabeth arrives and recognises her mortal enemy, the Doctor. It’s rare for the series to present us with such timeline-crossing moments, which is a shame really when you consider the potential there is in that sort of thing, but I suppose it might be a tad confusing for a general audience on a Saturday evening. Still, it worked brilliantly as a joke to close the episode on, and doubtless one of these decades Big Finish will be providing us with a story explaining exactly how the Tenth Doctor comes (or came, depending on how you look at it!) to incur the wrath of the famous monarch.

When it comes down to it, I suppose I have to regard The Shakespeare Code as something of a personal lesson to myself – namely, not to allow my expectations of an episode I am particularly looking forward to to go over the top, otherwise I’ll end up being far less impressed by it than I otherwise might be. This was, on the whole, a generally entertaining instalment in what looks like shaping up to be a very good third series.

Comments

Shakespeare..."his observations did add more of an air of mystery to the Doctor, which is always welcome. Why indeed this constant performance? The Carrionites noticed it too..."

As did Florence last week in Smith and Jones! With her lines that she thought the Doctor was always laughing to avoid the darkness...

The problem with the ep was two-fold: dull villains and a flimsy plot.

All the Carrionites did was cackle and shriek, and a little bit of voodoo here and there. And their 'plan' was to turn the world into a 'blasted heath' - why exactly? Just because.

And the plan's execution... get the actors to read certain lines inside a 14-sided shape. Because words "have power". That is just stupid. Why couldn't they say the lines themselves? Never explained. Why did it have to be on a certain day? Never explained.

This was a terrible ep. Less magic dressed up as science drressed up as magic in future eps, please. And not so panto with the villains!

Wait wait wait.

Dean Lennox Kelly = Shakespeare = Kev from Shameless? NO! really? I'm twice as impressed now, as I'm currently almost through series 2 of Shameless, and I hadn't caught it. I mean, I'm quite familiar with the concept of acting and makeup, but wow. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, as Fiona's been the Queen, and Steve's up for the next Scotty on Trek. I think I like this episode even more now, knowing who it was that played the Bard..

Salem: Yes, Dean Lennox Kelly was excellent as the Bard!

You may want to check out, on DVD, Dean as a Mancunian Puck in the recent BBC A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Part of the BBC ShakespeaRe-told mini-season (where the text was controversially jettisoned but the story kept, and told in a modern setting) the mini-season also features:

Billie Piper as weathergirl Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (with Sarah "spiderqueen" Parish as Beatrice.)

"Scotty" from your comment in Macbeth.

And Shirley Henderson in The Taming of the Shrew, last seen hiding from UNIT, much to Elton's relief, in Love and Monsters.

(Also, a drama based on the Bard's life featuring Torchwood's Indira Varma was on BBC4, titled A Waste of Shame, as part of the mini-season, but it is not on the DVD).

On the subject of Shameless:
David Threlfall for the Eleventh Doctor!

"Right...yez dalek bazzuds...hic."

The Bumper Book Of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts has this to say about The Shakespeare Code: The part of Elizabeth the First was played by Terry Molloy in full Davros costume on the orders of the Nation estate.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a Gareth Roberts-penned prequel next year detailing how the tenth Doctor caused Elizabeth I such offence.

Other than that I felt very much the same about The Shakespeare Code as you express here, and perhaps much for the same reasons.

My problem with Sarah Parrish was I'd seen her only previously in Blackpool, so all I could see was the Racnoss and The Doctor shagging while I was watching TRB.

Frank Gallagher as the Doctor is a frightening concept(although I've seen Threlfall without the Frank-up and he looks fairly dignified), but I could see James McAvoy (he is Scottish, and that seems to be a recurring theme).

Salem:

Leaving aside the joke I made about Frank-as-the-Doctor, David Threlfall would actually make an excellent Eleventh Doctor, as he has the same otherworldy quality that Eccleston and Tennant have.

James McAvoy I don't think has that otherworldliness.

Threlfall is probably too old though for the Nu-Who producers - Russell has said "We live in an age now where you would never cast an older Doctor" going on to say that anyone over 45 would not get a look in.

Not that I want Tennant to leave anytime soon!

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